If I ever get a dog-themed vanity license plate, it’s going to be this one.
You know, when you (co-)write a blog about dog training and dog sports, it’s really easy to slip into a pattern of just talking about the good stuff: your training successes, the things you’ve done well, the ribbons you’ve won, the obstacles you’ve conquered. It’s a little bit like Facebook: if you spend too much time over there, you can come away thinking that everyone you know is constantly winning awards, getting married, having babies, getting promotions at work and so forth. One of the unintended consequences of Facebook is that it sometimes makes you feel like your own life–with your messy kitchen and your half-eaten bowl of cereal and your pile of unfinished work–just doesn’t measure up to the lives of everyone you know. And it’s the same thing when you read dog blogs–you read about other people’s trial successes and the cool training they’re doing and the huge ribbons their dogs picked up last weekend–and then you look over at your dog, who has dirt on her nose from digging a hole in your yard and is in the process of chewing on something alarming, and you think, “Nope. That is not my dog, that is not my life, those are not going to be my ribbons.”
So it is in the service of balance that I am now going to come over to our usually sunny and positive blog and tell you this: I went to a trial last weekend, and it was awful. The dogs and I all performed terribly, I didn’t learn very much from the experience, and I didn’t leave feeling like, “Hey, this is something to build on, and it’ll be a great baseline for when we start practicing again” (which is generally how I feel at the end of trials: usually, while I know that things weren’t perfect, I am proud of my dogs and ready to start fixing the places where we made mistakes.) Not this time, though. This time I left just feeling depressed and frustrated, and the thought of going home and picking up my clicker and my rally cards again just bummed me out.
My trial experience was stressful for a lot of reasons: it was multi-day, it was far from home, it was expensive, it was one of the few trials in my area that my tripod dog is allowed to participate in (which meant that it was high stakes, title-wise), it was going to be my puppy’s debut; most importantly, though, we didn’t do great when we competed at the same venue last year, and I was full of determination that I was going to Show Them This Time, blah blah blah. So I worked hard with my dogs to prep for this trial. We practiced the exercises to the point where all three dogs could do them in tandem anywhere we were. We trained in novel venues–the pet store, the hardware store, the busy park–and we worked a lot on focusing through distractions. I did perch work with Nellie and Widget, working hard to get their heels nice and snappy. We did some mock trials with a training friend of ours, and I even enrolled the older dogs in a class, just so we could get some practice performing in front of a group of people and dogs. We practiced in the hotel room the night before the trial, and everyone looked gorgeous. And I was confident! I was sure we were going to leave the trial with a new title for every dog! I put my entry forms in, paid my fees and showed up early to the venue, ready to take on the world and show everyone how awesome my dogs were.
We bombed. Every one of the dogs NQed in every event I entered them in. And true to their natures, when my dogs NQ, they do not mess around. Some people NQ because, say, their sits are a little crooked or they misread a card and do the wrong kind of turn. When my dogs NQ, they run out of the ring and go roll in poop under a tree, or get so fascinated by the smell of the grass that they they forget I exist completely, or they ping-pong around on leash so much that it looks like I’m trying to walk a kite in a windstorm. It was the kind of thing where I didn’t bother to wait around and hear scores afterward, because there was no possibility at all that we’d Qed. And after all the work we’d put in, and after the effort and time and travel and money….it was embarrassing, because it truly looked like I’d just walked into the ring for a lark without doing any training at all. I left the trial early, feeling ashamed and sad and like I never wanted to do anything like that again. I wasn’t mad at my dogs–things like this are always the human’s fault–but it was definitely not the fun experience I was hoping to have with them.
And I want to submit that this is something that happens more often than we admit in dog training: sometimes you are hopeful and confident and have plans of action, but sometimes you are frustrated and sad and don’t know how to fix the problem that you’re having. And increasingly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge to ourselves that this is a real thing: dog training isn’t a constant process of building on your successes, and even careful preparation doesn’t always result in the outcomes you hoped for. Sometimes things go wrong and you don’t know why. Sometimes things just suck. And sometimes you don’t want to hear people’s advice about how to solve the problems you’re having and listen to the way they got THEIR perfect dog to do the things your imperfect dog isn’t doing: sometimes you just want to wallow and feel crummy about everything.
What is important, I think, is what comes next after the urge to wallow starts to fade away. I will admit: it’s been three days since I got home from our bummer trial, and I have had zero desire to work on any training stuff formally. But I have thrown the ball endless times for my dogs, and we went on a fun hike, and I’ve cuddled on the couch with them watching movies and they’ve sat on my feet and mugged me for bits of my peanut butter sandwich. They are my buddies, regardless of what they do or do not do at trials, and I love them; that is solid, always.
And I’ve slowly started going over the trial in my mind, and I’ve slowly–very slowly–started to figure out what the trial actually taught me. I learned that my girls still need practice in the actual ring, and that the faux-ring work we did in advance didn’t quite prepare us well enough. I learned that my own ring nerves are probably getting transmitted to them, and eventually I’ll need to figure out how to fix that. I learned that we’ve got to prepare better for specific kinds of distractions. I learned that the puppy can go into the ring without completely losing her mind. I learned that Lucy, my reactive dog, is actually at a point where she can go to trials now without threatening to rearrange everyone’s face. I learned that bringing stuffed frozen Kongs to trials is a very effective strategy for keeping the dogs quiet in their crates. And I learned that the next venue I try needs to be smaller, lower-key and closer to home. Next week, I will take the girls back to rally class, and I will do my best to consider all of these things and to integrate them into my training. Slowly, slowly.
Ultimately, there’s no bad experience that can’t teach you something. All a trial (or an encounter with the scary dog down the street, or a practice run on a difficult obstacle, or an offleash hike in a strange place)–is, really, is information: your dogs are always learning, and if you never give them a chance to show off what they’re learning, you never get the chance to make an assessment. Sometimes what they tell you is that they are ready for whatever it is you are asking of them; sometimes what they tell you is that they are decidedly not. Either way, you can’t know unless you give them the chance to tell you. If you can get something out of an experience, it’s not wasted, even if what you’re getting isn’t what you’d hoped for.
But that kind of Zen-like acceptance comes later. If you’ve just had a bad experience with your dog, be it a blown trial or a training failure or a snarky episode in the park, you have my permission to not leap into thinking What Does It All Mean? and How Do I Fix This? and How Can I Find The Silver Lining In This? right away. You don’t have to decide to quit your sport forever, or never trial again, or never go on a walk during the middle of the day; you may decide that eventually, but for now, sleep on it. For your sake and your dogs’ sake, don’t rush right back into training to try to fix the problem. Go have some ice cream, take your dogs out somewhere quiet and peaceful and just be with them, give yourself a break for a while. And know that even if you don’t see it on dog blogs or hear it from the trainers you admire, everyone has the kind of day where they just hit the wall. Everyone has felt hopeless and like they don’t know what to do next occasionally. We’re not superhuman, and neither are our dogs. As long as your relationship is solid, and as long as you have some hope that someday, down the road at some point, you’ll be able to get something useful out of the experience, then go ahead and wallow. Because everybody’s been there, and sometimes, things are just the worst.
From the hike we took before our second day of Epic Trial Fail. They may be monsters, but they’re MY monsters.